Memento Mori (novel)

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Memento Mori
Memento Mori (novel) coverart.jpg
First edition (UK)
Author Muriel Spark
Cover artist Victor Reinganum
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Publisher Macmillan (UK)
Lippincott (US)
Publication date
January 1959[1]
Media type Print, Audio & eBook
OCLC 1619422

Memento Mori is a novel by Scottish author Muriel Spark published by Macmillan in 1959. The title translates to "Remember you must die" and is the message delivered by a series of insidious phone-calls made to the elderly Dame Lettie Colston and her acquaintances. Who is making the calls and why? The recipients reflect on their past lives whilst trying to identify the culprit.


The plot revolves around a circle of elderly upper-class Britons and their acquaintances, with a third-person omniscient narrator following multiple individuals. The centre of the group is Dame Lettie Colston, OBE, a retired "committee member" who retired from extensive work in prison reform. Her brother Godfrey (the heir to and retired head of a brewing company), Godfrey's wife Charmian (a successful novelist), and Charmian's former maid Jean Taylor (now in a public nursing home) are other major characters.

The plot is ostensibly driven by phone calls Dame Lettie receives, in which she is civilly reminded "Remember you must die." The phone calls are able to track her whereabouts (as she is left a message to this extent at her brother's). It gradually emerges that all of the Colstons and their elderly acquaintances are receiving these telephone calls, although each individual has a different experience of the caller (some describe him as young; others foreign; others old; and Inspector Mortimer, a retired policeman asked to consult on the case, hears the message from a woman). Each individual also reacts differently to the message, ranging from paranoia (Lettie) to anger (Godfrey) to pleasant acceptance (Charmian). The caller(or callers) is never identified nor caught despite a police investigation, and Mortimer and Jean Taylor believe it is Death itself.

Another major plot element involves the Estate of Lisa Brooke. Lisa, an acquaintance of the group (she had an affair with Godfrey, and competed for a man named Guy Leet with Charmian and ultimately forced Leet to marry her), dies of natural causes early in the novel. Her death causes a succession dispute between her (secret) husband Guy Leet, who is crippled with arthritis (and walks with two sticks), Lisa's siblings, the Sidebottomes, and Lisa's longtime housekeeper Mrs. Pettigrew, who has a will in her favour made under dubious circumstances. Lisa's death frees Mrs. Pettigrew to care for the partially senile Charmian (who has suffered a stroke), where she blackmails Godfrey with his past infidelities and dominates a recovering Charmian, ultimately threatening to poison her. It is shown late in the novel that Lisa Brooke had in fact married an Irishman, Matthew O'Brien, who has been committed to an asylum most of his life under the delusion that he is God. Since that renders Leet's marriage to Brooke null and void, on O'Brien's death in the asylum the estate passes to Pettigrew.

Many of the interrelated actions of the group are chronicled by the retired sociologist Alec Warner, who has been in the past romantically involved with Jean Taylor and Lettie Colston. Warner undertakes a massive ten-year study on gerontology, and takes copious notes on all events he observes (including the "threatening" telephone message), but finally loses them all in a fire at his apartment, and "feels dead" from the regret. Alec regularly visits Jean Taylor, whose presence in a nursing home (with numerous "Grannies" and geriatric cases) provides a sane perspective on aging in an institution.

Lettie Colston loses her housekeeper Gwen to her growing paranoia, disconnects her phone, and falls victim to a home invasion (planned on information unwittingly and indirectly obtained from Gwen) in which she is bludgeoned to death with her own stick.

The novel concludes with a documentation of the deaths of almost all major characters (Mortimer dies of a heart attack, Charmian dies of old age in a nursing home, Godfrey dies from complications of a fatal car accident, etc.), as well as a description of the twilight years of any surviving individuals (Ronald Sidebottome is allowed up in the afternoon but not expected to live through the next winter).

Television adaptation[edit]

It was adapted for television in 1992 by the BBC, directed by Jack Clayton and starring Maggie Smith, Thora Hird, Michael Hordern and Zoë Wanamaker, and shown in the US by Masterpiece Theatre.[2]


External links[edit]